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Curbing freedom in the digital age

Updated: Oct 22, 2022

When the mass protests started after the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran started limiting access to Whatsapp. A few days later, it was turned into a complete Internet shutdown. As a result, protesters were cut off from communicating with each other and sharing updates on protests in Iran with the world. Very quickly, different organisations and activists started asking for help. They turned to the billionaire Elon Musk for granting Iranians access to his Starlink satellite, just as he did in Ukraine a few months ago, to which he agreed and will provide unlimited access to the Internet for the people of Iran.⁣

As social media gained importance over the last decade, the tactic of cutting access to the Internet has become common as social movements develop and protests start in different parts of the world. One of the first instances also happened in Iran during the 2009 Green Movement protests. However, the example of most significance comes from the Arab Spring in Egypt in 2011, when the government cut access to social media platforms and then switched off the Internet altogether, but with outside help, people were able to find alternative ways of making their voices heard. The most extended Internet ban happened in India, which uses such tools regularly whenever citizens take to the streets in protest of the government's actions. The blockade of the Internet connection in Kashmir started when people protested the decision of PM Narendra Modi to deprive Jammu and Kashmir of their autonomy and lasted five months. People in the affected areas underlined the abuse of human rights and everyday struggles and dangers the community faced. For example, it is known that several people died due to the lack of communication with medical services. The Internet is also often censored to fit government propaganda, like in Russia, where all of the independent media were shut down, and certain words were banned after the start of the invasion of Ukraine.

However, when some social movements gain support through social media, others are silenced by the algorithms, like in the case of pro-Palestinian content censorship on Facebook or Instagram.⁣

Studies show that Internet bans do not curb the protests and citizens' attitudes towards the government but intensify the turmoil. People also quickly find ways to bypass such a ban, with help from other countries. Moreover, such actions hurt the protesters and all citizens who cannot work, earn money, receive medical help, etc. The ban would also affect the government due to the visible negative economic consequences affecting the country every hour of the ban.⁣

Photo © AFP

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